LANGUAGE shapes historical memory. Metaphors, slogans, catchy quotes contribute to the resonance and recall of events, offering images that groove into the hard disk of individual historical recollections. Given the paucity of memorable words and phrases, the historical future of the Iran-contra affair may be in jeopardy. The Iran-contra hearings have generated only scattered bits and pieces of interesting imagery. William Casey favored ``off the shelf,'' ``stand alone,'' ``self-sustaining operations.'' Of course, that is only hearsay. His ``friends'' have put many words in his mouth, but he is without the means of ``plausible denial.''
Lt. Col. Oliver North talked about being a ``good marine'' who followed orders, but Stanley Kubrick's ``Full Metal Jacket'' might make the definition ambiguous, even dubious. Colonel North also described (endlessly, it seemed) ``residuals,'' but that was a euphemism. Had he said ``profits,'' America might have understood - and forgiven - more.
Perhaps the best one-liner came from North's lawyer, who asked the committee in mock exasperation whether he was a ``potted plant.'' Ironically, though, what might be best remembered is the line ``I cannot recall.''
The affair has not, of course, been without historical analogy. Newsweek magazine had no sooner declared Richard Nixon ``rehabilitated'' than President Ronald Reagan inadvertently unleashed memories of the other Nixon. Mr. Nixon may have been ``back,'' as the magazine said; but soon, too, were memories of Watergate. Poor Richard.
THE unforgettable imagery of Watergate shaped much of the Iran-contra agenda. From the outset we wondered what to call it. Irangate? This imitation lacked the flavor of the original. Who remembers Koreagate and Debategate?
Titles aside, a Watergate chestnut framed the basic issue: ``What did the President know, and when did he know it?'' In case anyone has forgotten, one of Nixon's greatest defenders and now, coincidentally, Mr. Reagan's chief of staff, originated that Watergate leitmotif.
The Iran-contra characters are relatively bland, their admissions of guilt self-serving. Their language is dull and - dare we say it? - boring: It offers none of the arresting imagery and insight of Watergate. Little of the sound and sight has been memorable, laughable, or affecting in a human way.
Compare Adm. John Poindexter's blank face to the sneers, scowls, jutting jaw, and constant animation that characterized John Ehrlichman's visage. Sen. Daniel Inouye simply does not have the eyebrows or jowls to rival Sam Ervin's plastic expressions. Senator Inouye has eloquence, but where are those measured cadences quoting the Bible, Shakespeare, Uncle Ephraim?
The civics and constitutional instructions of Iran-contra have been invaluable, but the boredom of Watergate junkies has been unrelieved by their fleeting glimpses of Betsy North. They remember the cameras lingering on Mo Dean, the Ice Maiden. They groaned when Admiral Poindexter could offer nothing more dramatic than ``the buck stops here.'' Imagine, reduced to pilfering a Harry Truman line! Small potatoes.
Watergate offered a rich canvas for the display of unforgettable language that has evolved into a lexicon of its own. The honored starting place goes to ``Watergate'' itself, a term safely ensconced in every modern dictionary. It ``stands alone,'' to turn a phrase - and it even divides like an amoeba to provide a suffix for all seasons.
At the time of the ``break-in,'' presidential press secretary Ron Ziegler promptly labeled it ``a third-rate burglary.'' Eventually that statement, like others, became ``inoperative,'' according to Mr. Ziegler. All that, of course, stemmed from Nixon's desire to make everything ``perfectly clear.''
Desperately, the President and ``All the President's Men'' sought to ``cover up'' any possible involvement by the White House or by ``CREEP.'' As John Dean said, it was time ``to draw the circles around the White House.'' The President's orders to ``the Big Enchilada'' - a.k.a. John Mitchell - were quite explicit. ``I don't give a ... what happens. I want you all to stonewall it,'' the President said. ``Let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up, or anything else that will save the plan. That's the whole point.'' Aides ``deep-sixed'' evidence; they tried ``limited modified hangouts.''
Revelations about ``dirty tricks,'' ``enemies lists,'' the ``White House horrors,'' and the ``plumbers'' continued to come forth, particularly as ``Deep Throat'' floated in and out of parking garages to see ``Woodstein.'' America's ``nattering nabobs'' and ``radical liberals'' were entranced. Could it be? Suddenly fantasy about Nixon became ``perfectly clear.'' Curiously, these folks cheered on every move by ``Maximum John'' Sirica - never mind if he played a little fast and loose with the rules.
The nation continued to ``wallow in Watergate,'' ignoring the President's pleas about ``Watergate under the bridge'' and that ``six months of Watergate were enough.'' The Senate nevertheless carried on with its hearings, offering more unforgettable moments. Remember ``Senator Ain't-no-way'' and ``what a liar'' - patented slogans of the Inouye and Ehrlichman mutual-admiration society?
BUT nothing in the Senate hearings equaled the stunning news that the President had tapes. Those meetings with Dean, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman were recorded? True, but they were bowdlerized with ``expletives deleted'' and an entire ``18 minutes'' erased. We had Alexander Haig's observation: ``a sinister force'' did it.
``I want it out. Get going,'' the President told his aides. Out the tapes came, and Nixon's words spawned a new political language. ``We could do that, but it would be wrong.'' And: ``You could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash. I know where it could be gotten.'' And: ``We didn't want to shut them up - we just didn't want them to talk to the press.''
We needed special guardsmen to guard the guards. So we got a ``special prosecutor,'' but he got caught up in the ``Saturday Night Massacre,'' a triumph of the Yale Law School over Harvard's as Prof. Robert Bork fired Prof. Archibald Cox. Appropriately, a ``firestorm'' engulfed the perpetrators of that deed most foul. The nation discovered an old word: ``impeachment.''
A ``fragile coalition'' of Republicans and Southern Democrats labored mightily to find a ``smoking gun'' in order to vote charges against the President. For his part, he continued to plead the imperatives of ``national security'' and ``executive privilege.'' His lawyers said that ``this President obeys the law.'' The President had his own words: ``I am not a crook.''
The President's plans boomeranged and he found himself ``twisting slowly in the wind.'' Crowds outside the White House chanted ``honk for impeachment'' and ``jail to the chief.'' Nixon was ``the one.'' And then it came: ``resignation'' - a first for a President who loved ``firsts.''
``The Big Enchilada'' offered the Nixon administration's 11th Commandment: ``Pay no attention to what we say; just watch what we do.'' Au contraire. They were two sides of the same coin.
And the ``pardon.'' Stay tuned. President Reagan reserves the right to rerun oldies but goodies.
Stanley I. Kutler, E. Gordon Fox professor of American institutions at the University of Wisconsin, is writing a history of Watergate to be published by Alfred A. Knopf.